L.B.: Global Weekly I

Via Eric Alterman I see that the cover story of the May 24 Global Weekly Newsweek is a long profile of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins by David Gates.

Gates does a good job in many ways, offering many insights into the Left Behind authors that the two men seem to have missed themselves. But he has one major stumble and a few points with which I want to quibble.

The first is the comic-book illustration that accompanies the online article (it's from the L.B. graphic novel. It portrays the chaos and destruction accompanying the story's Rapture-event in far more vivid detail than the book itself. (I just ordered a copy of this because I want to see how an illustrator tackles the difficult problem of translating this stubbornly un-graphic novel into a graphic novel.) The illustration really misrepresents the book — and especially the actions of the book's heroes and therefore of the authors' idea of what constitutes heroism — by highlighting the chaos and suffering that the book casually strolls past.

Gates attributes the popularity of the LB series to the chaos and fear that dominate our nightly news:

As the world gets increasingly scary, with much of the trouble centered in the Mideast — just where you'd expect from reading the book of Revelation — even secular Americans sometimes wonder (or at least wonder if they ought to start wondering) whether there might not be something to this End Times stuff.

Ah yes, chaos in the Middle East will remind people of the book of Revelation because John's apocalypse is all about the Middle East.

Except that it's not. Revelation, which was written on a European island in the Aegean, begins with letters to seven churches — in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea, for those keeping score at home. These churches were all in Asia Minor, specifically in western Turkey. Most of these cities are west of the Bosporus — west of Moscow and Kiev, about the same longitude as Joensuu, Finland. Yes, the book of Revelation talks a great deal about Babylon, which had been in the Middle East, but by the time it was written, the Babylonian Empire was no more. There was, however, the Roman Empire. If the book of Revelation is about any place, it is about Rome.

Gates here commits the cardinal error of journalists writing about LaHaye and Jenkins and their books. He assumes that the Bible must say something like what they say it says. He assumes that their apocalypse is based on John's apocalypse — and that if one reads the book of Revelation one will learn about things like the Rapture or about Gog and Magog. Because L&J say they read the Bible "literally," Gates assumes this is true. But no "literal" reading of the Bible would produce the kind of convoluted narrative LaHaye derives from leaping about through the scriptures, arbitrarily cutting and pasting a verse here, a chapter there, to cobble together a miasma that perversely interprets history as symbolism and symbolism as history.

"In an age of terror and tumult," Gates writes, "these books' biblical literalism offer[s] certitude to millions of Americans amid the chaos of their time."

"Literalism???" Aargh. You want "biblical literalism," look at St. Francis — a man who literally turned the other cheek, walked the extra mile and sold all he had to give to the poor. Of course, if you ask a premillennial dispensationalist like Tim LaHaye about such literal biblical imperatives from the mouth of Christ, he will explain that such teachings do not apply to our current "dispensation." The Sermon on the Mount, like most of Jesus' teachings, applies only to some future millennial kingdom, he will tell you — it's one of those passages that those of us living in the present age are free to dismiss. This is what passes for "biblical literalism"?

Imagine some idiosyncratic literary theorist who believes, say, that the key to reading Huckleberry Finn is understanding that its all a metaphor exploring the sexual relationship between Huck and Jim. Then imagine that everyone who interviews this strange theorist accepts his interpretation, repeating his assertions that this is the simplest, clearest and most common-sensical way of reading Twain's novel. That's pretty close to what Gates, like so many others, is doing here.

He does acknowledge, off-handedly, that some Christians may interpret the Bible a little differently, although he never explains how or why. And he even somewhat buys into LaHaye's know-nothing critique of the majority of theologians as intellectually elitist:

LaHaye's common-sense reading of the Bible is also tied up with a still-aggrieved sense of social class. "Those millions that I'm trying to reach take the Bible literally. It's the theologians that get all fouled up on some of these smug ideas that you've got to find some theological reason behind it. It bugs me that intellectuals look down their noses at we ordinary people."

And this:

Certainly LaHaye and Jenkins promulgate what might be called outsider theology. But they are outsiders: they grew up that way, and they're proud of it …

You know, outsiders — white, male North Americans. In LaHaye's populist scheme, it's perfectly acceptable to take millions from "ordinary people" without even bothering to give them well-crafted books in return. That doesn't make you an elitist. No, elitists are those smug intellectuals who study theology and try to make sense of the world.

  • Andrew Cory

    The article says “”Left Behind” gives believers an equivalent of such secular sagas as the “Lord of the Rings” books:”
    I stopped reading the article at that point:
    Anyone who can call Lord of the Rings “secular” is misinformed at best. Those books were a self-consciously Christian set designed to win converts…

  • Amanda

    And to think that Revelations almost didn’t make the canonical cut! How different might our political situation be then?

  • Reverend Ref

    And tagging onto Andrew’s comment, LB is in no way the “equivalent” of LOTR. Tolkien’s writing runs (pardon the pun) rings around L&J.

  • Damien Neil

    It is indeed elitist to value the opinions of intellectual theologians over those of hucksters who write bad books. That’s what elitism is–valuing an certain group over other people. And, equally, there’s nothing particularly elitist about making money from mediocre books with unsound theological grounding. LaHaye and Jenkins are populist; they assert that their opinions are no less worthwhile than those of people who are wiser, smarter, and better educated.
    What’s so wrong with elitism again?

  • wednesday white

    I liked the part where the LB characters are said not to speak in evangelicojargon. Because, you know, normal people talk without irony about feasting on the word, and servant’s hearts, and walks, and all that crap.
    Yyyeah.

  • Dwight

    I think that the best part was how the article related LaHaye’s conservative political views and then later tries to paint him as being compassionate because he pays so much in taxes.
    Let’s see, guy gets rich by peddling false teachings and then hoards his money – in opposition to his own stated “beliefs” – in long, long-term investments such as real estate.
    Gee, I wonder if I’ll be living on his street in heaven. Guys like LaHaye better hope that God allows the Sincerity Defense, assuming, of course, that these charlatans are actually victims of their own teachings instead of scumbags who are preying on the simple-minded.

  • michael (in DC)

    It bugs me that intellectuals look down their noses at we ordinary people.
    wrong. it’s us ordinary people (object of the preposition)…
    I know it’s probably just me being anal, but I’ve always thought this kind of grammatical mistake is a sure hallmark of the pseudo-intellectual charlatan: reaching for the more unnatural usage even when it’s patently wrong, because they have some vague idea that it sounds smart. Especially amusing in the midst of protesting (too much) how jus-folks LeHaye supposedly is…
    m

  • michael (in DC)

    It bugs me that intellectuals look down their noses at we ordinary people.
    wrong. it’s us ordinary people (object of the preposition)…
    I know it’s probably just me being anal, but I’ve always thought this kind of grammatical mistake is a sure hallmark of the pseudo-intellectual charlatan: reaching for the more unnatural usage even when it’s patently wrong, because they have some vague idea that it sounds smart. Especially amusing in the midst of protesting (too much) how jus-folks LeHaye supposedly is…
    m

  • michael (in DC)

    Double-posting, on the other hend, is a sure hallmark of the true man-of-the-people.
    Yeah, that’s the ticket…
    m

  • Jim

    Fred,
    I do hope that your comment section recognizes HTML tags…
    I am sitting here with my second vodka-on-the-rocks silently screaming (so as not to awake the wife who has to get up in about 5 hours) about the LaHaye/Jenkins phenomenon. I so totally agree with you on this issue that…well, I just wish I could write as eloquently as you do about this.
    aside: I must say that I view the Sermon on the Mount as the very essence of Christ’s teachings. The Beatitudes are what we will be judged by if we are judged at all. Although I fail miserably at living up to them, I still aspire to that set of ideals…
    Anyhow, I’ve given you due recognition as being Someone-Who-Knows-What-He’s-Talking-About, and I’ve linked to you in my links section. Maybe one of the three people who read my blog will check you out, eh?

  • Mr Ripley

    A sometime editor myself, I get really pained by the kinds of inaccuracies in book-reviewing that you point to in Gates’s piece. Hope you’ve sent your critique to Newsweek.
    P.S. May I second Rick Perlstein’s compliment to you?

  • Riggsveda

    “…if you ask a premillennial dispensationalist like Tim LaHaye about such literal biblical imperatives from the mouth of Christ, he will explain that such teachings do not apply to our current ‘dispensation’.”
    I was raised in and attended many small country Methodist churches in what I guess you’d call “the heartland”, but I don’t remember any of these convoluted fundie interpretations of that faith in my experience. People like LaHaye, and James Dobson, and Pat Robertson, seem as alien to the Christianity I was taught as a mullah from Iran or a shaman from Nunavit. Their rantings feel like cult-blather, not ordinary-folks stuff. And though the perception seems to be that they constitute a large and fast-growing portion of America, my empirical experience doesn’t bear it out. Even though I live in a large city, most of my friends, family, and others I’ve known continue to live in small towns and rural areas in the Midwest, and none of them hew to this kind of interpretation of Christianity.
    They would all find it way too weird and heartless.

  • Jeremy Pierce

    I don’t think most dispensationalists today take the older view that the Sermon on the Mount isn’t for Christians. I’d hesitate to assume LaHaye holds that unless you’ve seen him commit to it in print. Even if he did hold it, he has an easy respond to your argument about literalism. He can say that he is taking it literally. It’s just not spoken to Christians today. To those it was spoken to, it was a literal command. You don’t understand what the word ‘literal’ means if you think that’s not taking it literally. It’s not a metaphor or anything. There are many hermeneutical steps to take after taking something literally that will still give different ways of applying something. An example of something not taken literally would be saying that Jesus is a sheep and a lion. That’s not what’s going on here. The statements are all interpreted literally.

  • poetisa

    In the same article, Mr. LaHaye also offers this:
    “The liberals have crafted a Jesus that’s unscriptural and to their liking,” LaHaye says. “They want their God to be a big, benevolent grandfather who lets them into heaven anyway. The worst thing a person can do against God is to deceive people about the Bible. That’s satanically inspired.”
    I wonder what sort of God he wants…a domineering, controlling tyrant who welds the gates of Heaven shut? A micromanaging God, who gives out brownie points and demerits? Maybe LaHaye’s God is an aw-shucks guy, who can’t abide anyone who isn’t like Him.
    And if I’m not out of turn here, does Mr. LaHaye also have something of a bias against Orthodox Christians? If not, why is his Antichrist from a former Warsaw Pact nation—most of which have been traditionally Orthodox, such as Romania?
    I’d like to know.

  • Chris

    Oh I suspect LaHayne is only barely aware of the existence of Orthodox Christians, as he seems to be unaware of Catholics (there are after all only a billion of them). There are only two kinds of Christians in his view, mushy liberal heretics who are Satan’s catspaw and the elect. All other people are damned, except for Jews who see the error of their ways.
    The more I see LaHayne and his wacked out theology being given the stamp of authencity by an ignorant media, the more I start to sympathize with the old Holy Office of the Vatican, Inquisition, Index, and all. And that is the worst part of this ghastly phenomenon

  • Chris

    Oh I suspect LaHayne is only barely aware of the existence of Orthodox Christians, as he seems to be unaware of Catholics (there are after all only a billion of them). There are only two kinds of Christians in his view, mushy liberal heretics who are Satan’s catspaw and the elect. All other people are damned, except for Jews who see the error of their ways.
    The more I see LaHayne and his wacked out theology being given the stamp of authencity by an ignorant media, the more I start to sympathize with the old Holy Office of the Vatican, Inquisition, Index, and all. And that is the worst part of this ghastly phenomenon.

  • Chris

    Crap, double posted again!!

  • alsafi

    How does he reconcile that with Jesus’ injunction to sell all you have and give to the poor? “I can accomplish far more from my present lifestyle and the giving that I do to Christian work,” he says. “If I just sold everything and gave it to the poor, I can’t see where that would advance the Gospel as much as I’m doing.” But wouldn’t it advance the poor? “Well,” he says, “you know how much I pay in taxes?”
    There are so many things wrong with this (both in and out of context) that I hardly know where to begin. This man has the gall to accuse others of making up a god, and skewing the bible, to suit their own agendas? Is he deaf to irony? On the other hand… did he just admit that paying taxes is part of the Christian duty of charity? That must have been a joke–somehow I don’t think he really sees it that way.

  • Karen Underwood

    Oh, LaHaye’s plenty aware of Catholics–too big a market. This is why (Fred, feel free to correct me if I am wrong) I believe that the Pope is portrayed in LB as having declared ex cathedra once and for all that salvation occurs through grace and not works.
    I just had a thought–suppose LaHaye *is* one of those false prophets we were warned about in the Gospels?

  • eSteve

    The scary thing to me is how widespread the LB phenomenon is. Contrary to what most seem to think, I don’t believe it is limited to just the fire-breathing fundies. In my own life I see people like my parents — mild mannered Lutherans, socially moderate, not highly educated but smart, and my sister, ditto everything from my parents but now add a college degree. They inhale these crappy books as soon as they come out, and proudly line them up on their bookshelves. What are they thinking? Is the level of actual religious instruction really that weak in the mainstream churches so that they don’t see how wrong the LB theology is?
    It’s mystifying and saddening.

  • Nancy Lebovitz

    I think LaHaye still gets to be an outsider–his religion is pretty fringey, and I bet that until he started making money from it there were plenty of people to tell him that he was being weird.

  • Chris

    Karen,
    Is he really aware of Catholics, or are they just sort of “others” he can’t jam into a category? I admit I haven’t looked deep enough into the books to figure this out, but my impression is that he really has no idea what Catholics are like.
    Take the ex cathedra proclaimation. It’s just a device to make Catholics more like Protestants since (a) Rome has never declared that works are sufficient for salvation (despite some pastoral confusion on that point), (b) ex cathedra proclaimation is so rare as to be highly improbable (I believe that only two have ever been made, none in over a century), and (c) the Pope would never make an ex cathedra proclaimation on any point that has a strong scriptural and theological basis behind it already.
    Also I don’t know if any of the Trib Force even appears to be Catholic, lapse or otherwise. They pretty much all talk like a bunch of American evangelicals, including the Jews. Of course, this could just be Jenkins crappy writing.

  • eristick

    I presume he’s an outsider because, you know, “Christians are so persecuted today.” That whole bizarre doublespeak that points out the supposedly overwhelming percentage of devout Christians — who are also a disparaged minority because people tell them to shush when they start invoking their faith in Jesus while cutting in line at the hot dog cart.
    (Okay, i’m being snarky. But having been scolded that i’m practically feeding Christians to the lions by merely pointing out that witnessing to their personal faith is not relevant to, say, the agenda of the business meeting…)

  • Jeff

    In 1999 the Catholic and Lutheran churces published the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” While the RCC doesn’t actually say Luther was right it does say that without faith there is no justification. My interpretation is that good works are a product of faith. That is, people show their faith by their actions. As for “ex cathedra” proclamations (aka, Papal infallibilty), there’s been only one such infallible statement, Pius XII’s declaration in 1950 of the dogma of the Assumption of the BVM. Two if you want to count Pius IX’s declaration of the priciple of Papal infallibility as an infallible statement.

  • none

    A long time ago I read “A History of the End of the World” by Yuri Rubinsky, Ian Wiseman, and they illustrated how the the idea of the last days has changed over centuries.
    Art historians say the explosive growth of cathedrals happened when the world didn’t end in the year 1,000.
    I tend to favor the idea that we are going through another bout of millenium madness. I just hope the aftermath won’t be radioactive.
    With that said, if Gog and Magog had a blog it wouldn’t resemble my blog.

  • Scaramouche

    Silly me–I forgot to sign the above post.

  • Robert

    I’m sure that I’m showing my ignorance here, but what is the “Assumption of the BVM”?

  • alsafi

    Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

  • Naomi

    Robert,
    Since clarifying the acronym may not be enough, let me add:
    The doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the doctrine that, at the end of her life, Mary was taken bodily into heaven, where she now lives bodily in the presence of God.
    Whether she died before being assumed into heaven is not defined.
    Glad to be of service.

  • Chris

    I believe there was another in the late 1800s (probably by Pius X) about the Immaculate Conception of Mary, right after the doctrine of infallibility was declared.
    For those who don’t know, the Immaculate Conception declares that Mary was born without originial sin, making her a “stainless vessel” for God.
    In any event, those are the only two ex cathedra pronunciations I have ever heard of. LaHaye and Jenkins imply that the Pope makes such proclaimations to clear up uncertain points of Scripture, which is about as likely as the Pope laying an interdict on the US for allowing capital punishment and abortion.

  • C Jenkins

    “Anyone who can call Lord of the Rings “secular” is misinformed at best. Those books were a self-consciously Christian set designed to win converts…”
    Is that a fact, AC? And at what point did you stop reading Lord of the Rings? What chapter did you even read to get that impression?

    My favorite part of the article was the quote from Jerry; “I wish I was smart enough to write a book that’s hard to read, you know?”

  • Guinastasia

    Actually, Tolkien stated specifically that LOTR was NOT an allegory-he hated allegories. Yes, it’s obvious that he was influenced by his faith-that’s pretty much inevitable. But he didn’t want it to be a “Christian” story. Nothing wrong with that.
    The idea that LB is equal to Tolkien is pretty freaking scary.

  • Ken

    I liked the part where the LB characters are said not to speak in evangelicojargon. Because, you know, normal people talk without irony about feasting on the word, and servant’s hearts, and walks, and all that crap.
    Ever heard of the proverb “A fish doesn’t know it’s wet”?


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